A day in the life of a Texas Pitmaster
I spent a day (starting at the unpleasant hour of 3.30am) with pitboss Lance Kirkpatrick to see just what it takes to produce classic Central Texas style barbecue to feed the masses.
The mere phrase conjures up images of locomotive-like steel pits burning hot with oak fires, weathered pitbosses smeared in grease and ash, and briskets whose forebodingly dark crusted exteriors give way to bright red smoke rings and impossibly moist meat.
Folks from all over the world embark on pilgrimages to sample a taste of the Holy Trinity (brisket, pork rib and sausage), so to do they line for hours at barbecue joints that have the unique merit of being both modern and legendary. To be clear, the spectrum of barbecue is perilously wide. There’s far more bad barbecue to be had than good, and methods of cooking range from traditional rustic practices all the way through to sterile, automated commercial machines. But this is not about cooking in glorified ovens, this is about the craft of barbecue and the people who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of meaty perfection. Or in this case, it’s about Lance Kirkpatrick of Stiles Switch BBQ in Austin, Texas.
I have had the pleasure of knowing Lance for several years now, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more humble and good-natured man in the industry. He has a warm smile, gentle manner and unassuming modesty that belies his great talents. A trained chef, Kirkpatrick was lured into the world of barbecue when he answered an newspaper ad from the legendary Bobby Mueller (of Louie Mueller Barbecue fame). Lance worked the pits at Louie Mueller for 8 years, and his training remains a part of his current cooking life. “Bobby is the barbecue voice in my head”, Kirkpatrick smiles. “Watch the fire. Watch the meat.”, he repeats in a gruff voice, imitating the iconic Taylor pitboss, “that’s what Bobby always used to say”. Bobby also only referred to himself as a “pitboss”, which is why Kirkpatrick shies away from the “pitmaster” title. It could well be argued that “master” is too loosely self-appointed these days…
Stiles Switch is open 6 days a week, serving both lunch and dinner, which is no mean feat for a barbecue joint. Certainly, it’s easier to sell out of food at lunchtime and look like a rockstar than it is making sure you have enough to feed people for a whole day. And just to throw additional complications into the mix, Stiles Switch offers a huge range of meat choices, moreso than most others, with brisket, pork ribs, pork loin, beef ribs, turkey, chicken, and three types of sausage all part of the standard menu, and that’s not even counting weekly specials like Friday’s Notorious R.I.B (a monster plate beef rib over tater tots, smothered in smoked sausage queso). As Kirkpatrick puts it, “we cook a small farm”.
Such is the constant schedule at Stiles, even being clear of night shift doesn’t exclude you from 3am starts. The opening hours dictate that the pits (including their enormous pride and joy, Megatron), stay lit from Monday through to around 3pm on Sunday afternoon. That’s constant folks – a fire without a break that burns for nearly a full week. Fuelling such an endeavour takes around 2 cords of fine, seasoned Texas Post Oak wood, perhaps more in the winter when the hulking cold steel Klose pits take a little more coaxing to get moving.
To the uninitiated, the process of smoking appears primal and quite basic. A fire is lit, meat is loaded into the pit, and enough time passes until it’s ready to eat. Seems simple, but it is in fact anything but. Dealing with temperamental weather, wind, the direction the pits are angled, the quality and dryness of the wood, the variability of the meat and cut sizes, the airflow through the smoker and a host of other obstacles make traditional barbecue a test of true skill. (NB: ‘Traditional’ in this case refers to any barbecue cooked without the aid of power, gas, thermostat or any kind of automation).
Kirkpatrick arrives for his shift at 3am, to work a few hours alongside this week’s night cook, Andy, before relieving him of his duties and manning the pits solo until the first kitchen staff members begin to filter in just after 7am. Coffee is the first port of call, the mug then perched on the firebox to keep warm. On a whiteboard are the daily numbers, the quantity of each meat to be cooked, calculated by owner Shane Stiles. For Thursday lunch alone, they will be cooking 45 briskets, 32 racks of pork ribs, 20 beef ribs, each with at least three half-pound portions, and over 100 links of their signature sausage, amongst all the other items.
Barbecue is unforgiving in terms of human error. Because of the extreme cook times, there are no “do-overs” and you can’t just head into the kitchen and whip up more if something goes wrong. Each different protein must begin its cook at a certain time, and if you’ve forgotten or overlooked something, then you’re in real trouble. Due to the sizeable menu and longer open hours, Kirkpatrick and his team have a tougher challenge than most. Different meats need to cook at different times, but the smokers will all run at one temperature. Finding the balance between making room for everything on the four pits and making sure each piece sits in a correct temperature zone is like a hybrid game of Chess and Tetris. The biggest challenge of all relates to the old adage of “if you’re lookin’, you ain’t cookin'”; the doors on these pits are constantly being opened to check the contents within, and it takes an experienced touch to keep the fires holding correct temperature amongst the constant leaks of heat.
Every piece of meat that is sold at Stiles has been lovingly monitored, checked, prodded and poked (albeit with sanitary gloves!). The key message here, is that each animal is different and so each piece of meat is different, and requires babysitting. “When we say ‘craft style BBQ’, we mean taking attention to each piece of meat, where and when it needs to be moved at each time. Chicken alone needs to be moved three times before you even think of taking it off the pit”, declares Kirkpatrick.
During his preceding shift, Andy had seasoned the meats and started them on their cooking journey. Brisket is the king here, both in terms of pit real estate and popularity. Kirkpatrick estimates his briskets are around 10 pounds (after trimming), and uses a 5:1 coarse black pepper to salt ratio. And despite taking up so much room in the smokers, they will lose up to 50% of their mass during the cooking process, which, combined with the hours of human labor and attention, should give you some idea of why brisket commands a premium price.
Kirkpatrick isn’t stationary for more than a few short minutes the whole time I spend with him. One by one, he moves between the smokers, sighting the fire, adding a log or choosing to leave it be, keeping an eye on the temperature gauges, checking the meat. By the time he gets done with the last pit, the first is due for inspection again. Around 5.30 in the morning, the first meats are also ready to come off the pit, and so begins a slow migration of cooked meats to resting phase. It’s like watching chicks hatch – they’re not all going to happen at once, they’ll be ready when they’re ready.
It’s an erratic process. The first brisket checked is not yet ready to be taken off the pit. “It’s too bouncy” says Kirkpatrick, who goes on to explain that briskets should ‘give’ when pressed, not bounce, and that the very centre of the brisket is the last part to submit to the cooking process. While the first still needs more time, the two briskets next to it are ready, and so are taken off the pits, swaddled in a wrap of peach butcher paper and placed on a speed rack to cool. They’ll remain on the rack until they hit the right temperature, and are then transferred to the butchers block, ready for cutting and serving. It’s an important delineation – many places will wrap briskets and return them to the cooler part of the smoker to hold, or place them into a cooler, but that’s not truly resting the meat. To allow it proper rest time, brisket needs to be removed from any heat source, not simply held once ready.
Walking over to the far pit, Kirkpatrick throws open the hefty smoker door to check on the beef ribs, which are letting off an audible sizzle from pools of delicious rendered fat collecting in the craters of the bark. “You can actually hear them cooking!”, I mused. “Yeah, the beef ribs sing to you sometimes”, he chuckled.
Somewhere between the dawn breaking and my third cup of coffee, the first of many kitchen cooks, Juancho, arrives and immediately sets about cooking the side dishes for the day. Not to be outdone by the meat selection, Stiles Switch have five different side dishes and three desserts. Their corn casserole from an old family recipe is one of my favorite comfort foods, ever. The sweetness works just as well to contrast against the fattiness of barbecue as a vinegary slaw does, but I could eat it by the pint on it’s own.
I ask Kirkpatrick if he ever thinks about the sheer amount of meat that actually passes through his pits every week. “Oh yeah!” he says, knodding enthusiastically, “I mean, we go through 325 briskets a week here, so if you think about it, that’s like 160 cows. It’s a lot!”.
Kirkpatrick speaks of the meats as though they are children he has to attend to – over the years he had learned each of their nuances, special requirements and stubborn quirks. Turkey and beef rib need the least babysitting, he tells me, and while briskets need frequent monitoring, pork ribs are perhaps the most high maintenance. “Once you turn a rack for the first time, they then need to be turned every 20 minutes or so”, he says, quickly dashing the illusion that barbecue folk spend most of their time sitting around and waiting.
Opinions on who has the best barbecue are easier to find these days than a drunk person on Bourbon St, and between blogs, Yelp, and clickbait-y numbered lists, everyone is an expert. I ask Kirkpatrick if he pays attention to those ratings. “Our judge is everyone who comes up to the counter”, he states, explaining that customer satisfaction his highest accolade. Though, that isn’t without exception. As nearly every chef in the country would agree, his vexation are people who sit down to eat their meal and are already unhappy about something before their first bite. Or more specifically in the case of barbecue, people who have a certain way they prefer things, but don’t vocalise it. “If you get to the table and you don’t get what you want, it’s partially your fault” he says firmly. “We like picky people, we’re picky too. But you gotta be picky at the cutting table, or at least come back up and let us make it right”. And fair enough.
Once a thankless job, the surge in popularity of traditional barbecue methods has launched folks like Kirkpatrick into the public eye, with rockstar-like appearances at TMBBQ Fest, Barbecue Camp and even catering to actual rockstars at Austin City Limits music fest. The job may no longer be thankless, but it’s still damn hard work. Strenuous manual labor-meets-soaring culinary standards. Kirkpatrick’s take on it all? ‘It’s not always easy to be the man’ he says as he breaks into a grin, ‘but it’s pretty f-n cool’.